Max Clifford: A rogue, a criminal even, but was he not the only recognisable PR man of his generation?

FreddiehamsterThe infamous publicist Max Clifford died in prison this week. For much of his career before The Fall, he was the only “PR” person most people in the UK had ever heard of.

From all accounts he was not a very nice man. But he was one hell of a publicist, and a self-publicist. For a generation of people he was the only PR man anybody had heard of.

I have written elsewhere on this blog on PR with reference to its most well-known fictional representations in ‘Ab Fab’ and ‘Absolute Power’, although others might choose more recent depictions such as ‘WIA’ or ‘Thick of It’ in preference.

Either way other than Max Clifford, and with a very different kind of infamy Tim Bell, I doubt if most people could name a person who works in PR in real life.

Many if not most people I know in PR tend to cringe when any of these programmes are mentioned.

‘Well of course that’s not really how PR is in reality’ they say. As if they are self-deluded that the ‘art of perception’ and ‘business of persuasion’* we call public relations is ever over-concerned with reality. * Both titles of books by the altogether more respectable and universally esteemed gurus of PR Bob Leaf and Harold Burson respectively as it happens)

Others say similar things about the likes of the late Max Clifford. I’d be a wealthy man if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard somebody or other say ‘Well of course Clifford is a publicist, that’s not PR you know.’

I’m not sure at what point getting positive publicity for a client stopped being PR, or spinning a negative perception of a client into a positive one in the perception of key stakeholders stopped being PR.

Do we say that somebody pushing a story about a new product or service to an uninterested journalist isn’t PR?

Do we say that a lobbyist getting a policy, regulation or law changed, inserted or dropped to the benefit of the client and possible detriment of everybody else isn’t PR?

Clifford got his clients the media coverage they craved. Sounds like media story selling to me. And he tried to keep or get them out of the spotlight when the publicity would have been or was already negative. Sounds like crisis management to me.

I wonder if the bad smell which manifests itself under the noses of some PR people when they see or hear of Clifford is because rather like those characters in the TV programmes, the Man on the Clapham Omnibus has actually heard of him?

They begrudge the man his fame and infamy because as we all know most people don’t care about the job we do. Indeed most people wouldn’t even think it was a proper job.

On some days I’m not sure I do either.

PR of whatever flavour is when it comes down to it an adjunct of sales. PR plays a valuable, sometimes crucial, role in helping people to sell more products, services, people, policies, deals, and ideas.

Those people may be businesses, governments, special interests, political parties, or individuals. It’s principle tool of that sales support is the earning, promotion, and protection of a good reputation.

Some PR work is related to marketing, some to issues management, and other work more related to organisational or even geopolitical change. Publicity and the work of a publicist is integral to all three pillars of PR.

How the work of a publicist is not PR is not something I understand.

Love him or hate him, and I assume more people fall into the latter group, and putting aside his imprisonment for under-age sexual offences as a convicted sexual predator, as a publicist, Clifford built relations with publics who mattered to his clients. Isn’t that public relations?

I fail to see much difference between publicising a worthy social cause, changing a law, getting a government elected, promoting a financial institution, or helping to sell more hamburgers with making Freddie Starr probably the most memorable comedian of his generation and genre. To say otherwise is pure snobbery.

For anybody in any kind of work calling itself PR to start pointing fingers at other people in different kinds of PR who they believe to be generous or frugal with the actuality, smacks of people in glasshouses syndrome.

However objectionable the man might have been, and I have no personal knowledge of him, it seems simply an act of pomposity to say that his work was not PR.

Saying that Clifford was not good at story selling would be as daft as saying Herr Goebbels wasn’t a great propagandist and the master of event management. Both were examples of great PR in their totally different ways.

We might not like what they did or why they did what they did, but it doesn’t make them any less expert at their respective jobs, both can be considered PR.

Personally if I had created a story that end up on the front page of ‘The Sun’ with the splash “Freddie Starr ate my hamster” I would have considered by work on this earth done. RIP (not that you deserve it) Clifford you old rogue.


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